State College senior Matt Wherley munched on watermelon Tuesday afternoon, burying his nose in his cell phone after winning his singles match.
He had never before watched his team triumph in the first round of the PIAA Class 3A tournament. So he just needed a few minutes to relax and reset at Procare Fitness Club, before turning his focus toward his teammates who were still playing.
The long-haired senior with mismatched shoelaces remained stoic while watching the two doubles matches — right up until the Little Lions clinched the 3-1 win over Hershey on a double-fault to advance to the PIAA quarterfinals. That’s when the level-headed Wherley didn’t even try to hide his goofy smile.
“This is the farthest I’ve ever gotten,” Wherley said, alluding to the fact State College hasn’t reached the quarterfinals since 2013. “It’s pretty awesome just to get to play more tennis. I’ve got, at most, five more matches ever — and we just bought ourselves another one.”
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Wherley’s approach defined the day for State College: He remained calm throughout his match, battled back from a few deficits and made it all look easy. Early in the match, trailing 40-love, Wherley still rallied to win the game — which clinched the match — and left his opponent shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck out of frustration.
Minutes later, at the neighboring court, Wherley’s teammate — junior Fernando del Castillo — sprinted into the court divider while chasing a shot. He kept it inbounds, somehow recovered and then returned his opponent’s shot to go up 4-1 in the second set. His opponent just sighed.
“Today, I think it was just a matter of being a little more consistent than the other guy,” del Castillo said after cruising to a 6-0, 6-1 victory.
Del Castillo and Wherley were the first Little Lions to finish their matches and give their team a 2-0 lead. Shortly after, they exited the green court and watched their teammates from behind the glass, in the hallway leading up to the three indoor courts.
Both insisted they weren’t nervous at that point. They did their job; they could relax. And they were both feeling pretty confident after watching the No. 1 doubles pair of Terrence Li and Owen Lloyd take the first set. It also didn’t hurt that State College’s other doubles pair fought back from a 5-2 deficit to win the first set 7-5.
“It sounds weird, but that’s how I expected it to go,” Wherley said, referring to Li and Lloyd’s performance. “Those guys are probably playing the best they played all year.”
Wherley milled around the hallway, watching teammate Nick Vanden fall in straight sets before turning his focus toward the doubles. The Little Lions needed just one of their doubles pairs to win a match for the team to advance to the PIAA quarterfinals — and Wherley and del Castillo didn’t have to wait too long.
“It was a high-pressure situation,” Li said, explaining that he was well-aware the entire match was on the line with his performance. “But you can’t really think about it, or it’ll get to you.”
It got to the other team instead. Hershey’s pair double-faulted to hand State College the win; Wherley and del Castillo walked back onto the court to hug and congratulate their doubles pair.
For Wherley, the win was especially memorable. He’s one of just two seniors on the team — Aleef Mannan is the other — and he’s already collected accolades at every turn this season. He was the runner-up in District 6 singles (to Vanden), the winner of District 6 doubles and a critical piece in the team district title. Now, he’s taken State College the furthest it’s been in the PIAA tournament since 2013.
His goofy smile right after the win soon faded, however. And the teen in the crocs was back to his calm self.
“It should seem like, ‘Woo-hoo, we’re moving on,’” he said. “But we have to focus on the next round.
“This is just a step in the right direction.”
State College 3, Hershey 1
1. Dante Falcuci (H) def. Nick Vanden 7-6(10), 7-5
2. Matt Wherley (SC) def. JT Mullins 6-3, 6-1
3. Fernando del Castillo (SC) def. Nate Shaw 6-0, 6-1
1. Owen Lloyd-Terrence Li (SC) def. Wes Field-Neo Zhou 6-1, 6-4
2. Garrett Schoonmaker-Aleef Mannan (SC) led 7-5, 2-1 DNF